RICHMOND, VA -- Michael Vick can only hope he will get more leniency from the judge than he did from the NFL.
Roger Goodell's letter informing the Atlanta Falcons quarterback of his suspension reads almost like a goodbye, the NFL commissioner doing nothing to hide his disgust and his disdain.
A similar reaction by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who will be presented with Vick's plea agreement on Monday, could mean years in prison.
In court papers, Vick admitted bankrolling "Bad Newz Kennels" and participating in the killing of dogs in the dogfighting operation. But he tried to deflect much of his culpability in the grisly enterprise onto his friends.
That didn't deter Goodell, who was quick to hold Vick responsible, suspending him indefinitely and without pay Friday from the job that made him a millionaire and a superstar. The decision, on the brink of season opener, left the Falcons without their headline player.
Goodell made it forcefully clear Vick wasn't helping himself by trying to pawn off blame on his three co-defendants in the case.
"You are now justifiably facing consequences for the decisions you made and the conduct in which you engaged. Your career, freedom and public standing are now in the most serious jeopardy," Goodell wrote.
The portrait of Vick as a person who enjoyed the heinous blood sport has fueled protests by animal-rights activists and destroyed his image, prompting sponsors to dump him.
After initially denying his involvement, the 27-year-old player has said little publicly about the case. Privately, he met with Goodell and Falcons owner Arthur Blank when the investigation was just beginning, and lied to both.
Vick's defense attorney, Billy Martin, said Vick will "explain his actions" publicly, but did not say when. The "Tom Joyner Morning Show," a syndicated program based in Dallas, said it will have a live interview with Vick on Tuesday, and he will take questions from callers.
No matter what Vick says or doesn't say, the final word rests with Hudson, a judge whose household includes a Bichon Frise, a white powder puff of a dog.
As he emphasized to Vick's co-defendants when they agreed to their plea deals, Hudson is not bound by a prosecutor's recommendations or by sentencing guidelines.
Vick will plead guilty to conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal-fighting venture. Prosecutors will suggest a term of 12 to 18 months, but Hudson could give him five years, or more. The sentencing likely will be set before the end of the year.
His lawyers say they will try to minimize Vick's involvement.
"Our position has been that we are going to try to help Judge Hudson understand all the facts and Michael's role," Martin said in telephone interview. "Michael's role was different than others associated with this incident."
That role has been widely and loudly debated on sports talk radio, TV and football stadiums around the country.
Even before Vick admitted to his participation in the brutal sport, animal-rights groups protested outside NFL headquarters, Falcons camp and the federal court.
Nike severed its ties with him Friday, Reebok already has stopped selling his jersey and is accepting refunds for it. Upper Deck removed his card from its 2007 collection.
Reaction to the case largely has been divided along racial lines. Most of those defending Vick are black supporters; protesters have been predominantly white.
Black officials in Surry County got hate mail accusing them of dragging their feet on a local investigation to protect one of their own, and even the prosecutor there suggested race and profile were motives when the feds got involved.
The Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, which urged the public not to prematurely judge Vick, came to his defense again this week, saying he should be allowed to pursue his football career after serving his sentence.
In Vick's old neighborhood, he's seen as someone who never forgot his roots.
After deciding to enter the NFL draft, he picked the Boys & Girls Club where he spent much of his youth to make the announcement, remembering how it shaped his life.
A few months ago, mentor James "Poo" Johnson called Vick to ask if he could get some equipment for a Boys & Girls Club tournament. Vick sent the stuff along and provided school supplies and air conditioners to needy residents in the city.
His lawyers hope those stories showing Vick's better side will have sway. But it was the sway of those hometown ties that got Vick into this mess.
His supporters portray him as a victim of his own intense loyalty to the guys he hung out with before he became rich and famous. One such friend was Tony Taylor of Hampton, the first of three co-defendants to cop a plea.
Earnest Hardy, who lives next door to Vick's property in rural Surry County, said Taylor once told him Vick had promised: "If I ever make it, I'm going to look out for you."
Said Hardy: "So Tony was working at Marva Maid Dairy over in Newport News and he said when Mike got that big contract with all that money, he came and got him. He said, 'Didn't I tell you I was going to look out for you?' And that's what he did."
But they didn't look out for Vick.
Co-defendants Quanis Phillips of Atlanta and Purnell Peace pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Vick if the case went to trial.
"If you go back and look at the list, the people that reaped the most personal benefit from being close to Mike are really the ones that are sinking him further down now," Hardy said.
When authorities found dozens of dogs and equipment commonly used in dogfighting at his property, Vick claimed he'd hardly ever been to the house and that family members had taken advantage of his generosity.
"If I'm not there, I don't know what's going on," he said.
Vick's written plea agreement filed with the court Friday erased that notion.
He acknowledged bankrolling the operation, participating in the execution of dogs in April and sponsoring -- and sometimes attending -- dogfights over the past six years.
The dogs had names such as "Magic," "Tiny" and "Too Short," and the enterprise's name, "Bad Newz Kennels," was an homage to the street name of his native Newport News.
In his plea agreement, Vick said that although he provided money for others to bet on the fights, he never placed bets himself or shared in any winnings -- a distinction that clearly carried no weight with Goodell. The commissioner also cleared the Falcons to try to get back $22 million in signing bonuses paid as part of a 10-year, $130 million contract.
Atlanta made him the No. 1 draft pick in 2001 after a dazzling three-year stint at Virginia Tech, where he had been a model player -- polite, soft-spoken and humble -- and led the Hokies to the 2000 national championship game.
By all accounts, it was good being Mike Vick.
He took over as the starter in 2002, leading Atlanta to the playoffs for the first time in four years. In 2004, Atlanta advanced to the NFC championship game, and the Falcons gave Vick the big contract -- then the richest awarded in NFL history.
Now, it's all come crashing down.
Vick's troubles have left those that knew him -- or thought they did -- flummoxed.
"The Michael Vick I knew here at Tech was a warm, caring guy, a generous guy, gracious and polite and a very friendly person," said Bill Roth, who dealt with Vick regularly as Virginia Tech's radio play-by-play announcer.
Still, the first seeds of trouble were planted in an interview that Vick did shortly before he was drafted. He talked proudly of his interest in dogs and said he wanted to open his own kennel.
Then there were a few bumps:
-- a middle-finger salute to Falcons fans after a 31-13 drubbing by the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome last November.
-- airport security's confiscation of a water bottle with a hidden compartment that allegedly reeked of marijuana, an incident that made Vick the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows in January.
-- a 2005 lawsuit, ultimately dismissed, by a woman who claimed Vick sought treatment for a sexually transmitted disease under the alias "Ron Mexico" after infecting her.
Embarrassing situations, but Vick escaped them as adroitly as he dodged defenders in becoming the first NFL quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
He met his match in the U.S. Attorney's office in Richmond, and an indictment that described how Bad Newz Kennels dogs were executed after being beaten in fights, or for not showing enough ferocity in test sessions. In one case, it said Vick was consulted before a beaten dog was wet down and electrocuted.
For details like that, Vick's NFL career could be over.
Dan Shannon, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said more than a guilty plea and an apology should be demanded if Vick is allowed to play again.
"It's not outside the realm of possibility if he makes a sincere effort not only to own up to what he's done and apologize, but takes steps to try to prevent this thing from happening in the future," he said. "So far, we haven't seen anything indicating that's the road he wants to take."
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